Retailers

1-on-1 With SpartanNash's Lori Raya

WGB's February Endcap guest on AI, 'Midwest nice' and importance of 'the next question'
Lori Raya
Illustration by Olivier Balez

Lori Raya is chief merchandising and marketing officer of Grand Rapids, Mich.-based SpartanNash.

Meg Major: Welcome to Endcap, Lori—let’s get after it! You were quoted as saying that the grocery business remains a place “where relationships and local really matter.” Can you please elaborate?

Lori Raya: The more I’ve changed roles within my career—and now with my recent transition to SpartanNash—the more I’ve realized how small the grocery industry really is. As you build connections over the years, it’s important to keep those relationships strong and honor your commitments, because at the end of the day, how you treat people is what matters most. That’s one of the things I appreciate about working at SpartanNash, because the company’s vision—to be a best-in-class business that feels local, where relationships matter—really aligns with that viewpoint as well.

After a three-decade career with Safeway/Albertsons, you began a new chapter as SpartanNash’s chief merchandising and marketing officer a year ago this month. What has been a highlight of your first year in Michigan?

I got to see Lake Michigan! I’ve had a lot of experiences relocating, but I’ve never had the opportunity to live in the Midwest. What I’ve learned—and I’m truly grateful for—is that there is such a thing as “Midwest nice.” Within SpartanNash, one of my biggest highlights of the past year has been the culture of the organization. Everyone has embraced me—someone with a different perspective, who only recently joined the company—and they’ve been open to sharing their knowledge of the business, which enables me to become a better leader.

At last year’s Groceryshop conference, you discussed how artificial intelligence “is changing the way we look at our business and the way that we are promoting products.” What do you find most fascinating about AI’s potential thus far?

The thing I find most fascinating about AI is the absolute number of combinations that can be generated in such a short amount of time. As operators, we use our gut instinct a lot, which I think is still very important to do, but sometimes, we think about things the same way we always have. AI forces us to look at the business through a different lens. It’s a lens that we couldn’t get without AI, and it provides us with a deeper knowledge of our consumers’ behavior as we put together promotions that engage our customers and drive loyalty.

You also spoke at Groceryshop about issues that wake you up in the morning vs. those that keep you awake at night. What do you most look forward to waking up to these days?

I truly wake up looking forward to coming into work every day. I wake up to come have fun with what I do, to celebrate successes and to tackle challenges that may arise. Our business is a bit of a chess game, and it challenges you to think differently every time you wake, just based on something that happened the day prior or the week prior.

When you joined SpartanNash, it was noted that your career has been inspiring to those who love the grocery business. What most inspires you?

Even after 30 years in the business, I am inspired by those who are just joining the grocery industry—or are newer to the grocery industry—and the different perspectives they bring.

When thinking about a former influential authority figure from your past, what is the most important thing you learned from them, and how has it benefited you?

During my career, I’ve been taught to think about “the next question.” In other words, whether I’m looking at data, telling a story or developing a strategy, I try to think about the next question someone will ask me that I haven’t answered myself. That way, when you’re making decisions, you can think about the downstream positive and negative implications, because you’ve looked at the next question and are more prepared because of it.

Lightning Round

What’s your least favorite business jargon term?

Bips (basis points).

On a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the worst and 10 the best, how would you rate your ability to cook?

I’m definitely a 1. My husband says I’m allowed to be in charge of two things in the kitchen: drinks and dishes.

What’s your favorite carnival food?

A corn dog. They’re just so satisfying and perfectly flavorful.

What is something that you believe is true that some might disagree with you about?

That “Die Hard” is a Christmas movie. It’s literally set during a Christmas party! Of course it’s a Christmas movie.

What’s your favorite book of all time, and why?

I’m torn between two: “Discover Your True North” by Bill George, because it guides you on who you really are and what you believe as a leader; and “The Happiness Advantage” by Shawn Achor, because it teaches you how contagious your happiness can be to those around you.

Do you play a musical instrument? If yes, which one. If not, which would you most like to play?

I do not; but I’d really like to learn how to play the piano.

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